This is the companion film to Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine, both films contributing greatly to a possible dialogue about the dire situation in the Middle East.
Unrated. Running time: 1 hour 27 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love
Directors Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young’s film is truly a movie that matters. I wish every citizen of the U.S., Israel, and Palestine could see and discuss this film, and perhaps even more, our leaders. It is about two once antagonistic groups, one of Israeli soldiers and the other of Palestinian fighters, who have recognized the folly of a bloody conflict that has extended for almost 70 years. They have renounced hatred and violence and in 2005 formed Combatants for Peace through which they hope to change the attitude of their people and their governments so they can arrive at a peaceful coexistence. The film tells the story of eight members of the organization, of how they changed their hearts and minds regarding their enemies. Their stories, which are re-enacted as they speak, are truly remarkable. Interspersed throughout are vintage newsreels, home movies, and photos, giving the context of the individual stories. The film concludes with a video report of a peaceful demonstration at a wall between Israel and the occupied land.
The film begins in 2005 with four Israelis traveling by car to meet some Palestinians in the West Bank town of Beit Jala. One of them voices his fear concerning dangers that might lie ahead. They have not met the Palestinians: are they being set up to be kidnapped by Muslim terrorists and held for ransom, as other Israelis have been? There follows the front titles and credits, and then a brief historical summary that includes visuals from the Holocaust; the Zionist emigration to Palestine; the creation of Israel and the Arab attacks; and subsequent events up to the early 21st century.
After the history reminder, the film goes back and forth between that meeting and events throughout the next nine years. Apparently, the Palestinians had learned of the refusal of the soldiers, fed up with the inhumanity they had become emmeshed in as members of the force occupying the West Bank, to answer any future calls to serve in the occupying Army, except for purely defensive action within Israel’s 1967 borders. When the soldiers went public, a few people supported them, but most reacted angrily, branding them as traitors. The Palestinians too had become fed up with the hatred and violence on their side, and so the two groups were meeting to see if they could work together to change the poisonous situation, thus giving birth to Combatants for Peace.
The filmmakers reveal that the name of their film came from the incident in which the group was demonstrating and a couple of the leaders were arrested by Israeli soldiers and charged with “Disturbing the Peace.” Quite a throwback to the Civil Rights days of Montgomery and Birmingham! The members accept the appellation, declaring that the status quo is not really peace, given all the violence committed by militants on both sides.
Chosen to represent both sides of the conflict are eight individuals, four Israelis and four Palestinians, with one of each group being a woman. Their initial meetings were like those sponsored by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee in that each confessed to his or her former hatred of the other and were involved in acts hurtful to the other side. They conclude their stories by telling how they were led to opt out of the cycle of hatred and violence.
Shifa al-Qudsi had been a beauty technician when she was volunteered to be a suicide bomber. Two of her cousins and one of her in-laws had been killed by Israeli soldiers. She believes her people are oppressed so much that she justifies her plan by saying that the Israelis “didn’t leave us a chance… our world was a cemetery of the living.” Her telling her six-year-old daughter that she would be going away the next day and not returning is a moving moment, especially when the girl pleads for her not to leave her alone. However, the Israelis, tipped off, broke into her home and arrested her that night. During her six-year prison stint she engaged her female guard in a conversation when she learned that the woman’s brother was killed in a bomb attack. Though sorrowful, the guard declared, “I am against any kind of violence.” Shifa was so moved to discover that there were Israelis who hated the violence and wanted peace that she began to reexamine her own views. This included reading the writings of Gandhi and Mandela.
Assaf Yacobovitz was an officer in the Israeli Air Force directing an aerial strike on a targeted house in Gaza. It is one thing to sit in front of a radar screen and order the destruction of an enemy target, but then he got up and saw on a television screen the news report of the result of what he had ordered. The line of mangled and burnt bodies, mostly civilian, so sickened him that his conscience drove him to give up his military work.
For me one of the most interesting of the conversion stories is that of Palestinian fighter Sulaiman Khatib, who at the age of 14 was throwing rocks at soldiers and preparing Molotov cocktails. He and a friend tried to obtain guns by stabbing two Israelis soldiers: fortunately, they did not kill their enemies, but they were arrested and sent to prison where they were often abused and sometimes tortured. Khatib read a lot in the library and one day watched Schindler’s List, which triggered within himself deep emotions. Those being murdered onscreen were the ancestors of the people he had hated and tried to kill. He thereupon learned Hebrew and English and studied Jewish history, as well as that of nonviolent resistance. Released from prison after ten years, he joined with others advocating friendship and peace between the warring peoples. (I have a workshop called “The Power of Story” centering on such films as Amistad; Avalon; Fried Green Tomatoes; The Big Fish; Final Solution; and others. In all of these films stories transform the listener. You can bet that this one will be incorporated in any future presentation.)
The other five conversion stories are also uplifting, but I will leave it to you to discover them. I do want to mention one story in which Jamil Qassas and his wife Fatima argue about taking their two young daughters to a Combatants’ demonstration. She is against it, claiming that she does not want to impose their values on them, but to learn to choose for themselves. However, he points out, that she does take them to the demonstrations where violence is espoused. She responds with the charge that her husband is betraying their family by fraternizing with Israelis, though she has not met them. Thus, we see that families, as well as peoples, are split over how the enemy should be resisted.
The last part of the film shows a 2015 Tel Aviv memorial service in which those who have died on both sides are honored, and then the preparations for a large demonstration at the West Bank wall separating Jews from Palestinians. Actually, I should say a fence and a wall, the wall being on the Palestinian side of the narrow lane that separates the territories and a steel fence on the Israeli’s. A large Bread and Puppet-like face is created of papier-mâché to which are attached extremely long arms and hands. On the day of the march the Jewish members of Combatants for Peace march on their side of the fence, and the Palestinians on theirs up to the point where the wall gives way also to a fence where the two groups can see each other.
Chanting “Two states for two peoples!” members hold aloft posters, and a long line of Palestinians carry large panels painted on one side the drab gray color of the wall, and on the other colorful pastoral scenes. When they lay aside their wall panels, the huge face is revealed to the Jews. The marchers who are carrying its arms and hands move toward the fence so that it looks as if the friendly giant is reaching out in a welcoming embrace of those on the other side. I was moved to think of some of the depictions of Christ reaching out in a welcoming, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden…” However, soon a contingent of Israeli soldiers hasten down the inner corridor, and the first thing they do is, without a warning, throw over the Palestinian side a tear gas canister. Israeli theater director Chen Alon glances at the soldiers between the wall and fence and remarks on the irony of the situation: it is his former Army comrades who appear to be the prisoners, not his Palestinians friends. The soldiers are forced by their leaders to perpetuate the cycle of hatred and violence that seems to have no end in view.
The eight men and women in the film have the courage and the imagination to give up the narrative they were taught from birth about themselves and their enemies. One of them says that at the beginning they all shared “a willingness to kill people we don’t know.” This reminded me of Gandhi-follower Richard Gregg’s argument in his classic book The Power of Nonviolence that two people engaged in a fight are basically in agreement, no matter what they are fighting about, namely that violence is the best or only way of dealing with their differences. He calls nonviolence “Moral Jiu-Jitsu” because when persons respond to an aggressive act in a nonviolent way, they throw their attacker off balance because the attacker was expecting a violent response. It is apparent from the abuse heaped on them by hostile people–“traitors” and “whores”—that Combatants for Peace members have a long way to go to convince the public on both sides of the wall that they are right, that the only path to peace is for both sides to renounce violence. However, they are reaching people around the world, such as two Irishmen, Alistair Little and Jerry Foster, a Catholic and a Protestant who fought in Northern Ireland on opposing sides, sent a message to the Combatants for Peace Facebook page, “You are not alone in your struggle. Our journey is to humanize each other and understand each other. You are an inspiration to the international community.” (This is not in the film but in a report about Combatants for Peace in Al Monitor, July 18, 2016)
Someone (usually attributed to Einstein) has written, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It is obvious that the eight people in this film, as opposed to their millions of fellow citizens imprisoned by their narratives of hatred and vengeance, are the sane ones in a world gone mad. The film played for just a week in Cincinnati, so if it shows up in your area, see it right away. It is available at the film’s website on DVD ($19.99 + sh) or for rent on streaming video ($4.99)—worth every penny!.
Note: Another good film besides this one and Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine is Martin Doblmeir’s wonderful The Power of Forgiveness. These three films would make a great three-part series on peacemaking in our world. Wow, just now while searching IMDB, I came across another documentary entitled The Combatants for Peace and the Billboard From Bethlehem about the American owner of a billboard company engaging both sides in conversation. I hope to report more on this later, but click on the title, and you can see the intriguing trailer.
This review with a set of questions will be in the June 2017 issue of VP.